The day began for me in the oddest of ways. As is my habit, I worked late into the night of Monday Sept. 10th 2001, writing in my study, and slept in the morning of the 11th. At exactly 10 a.m. I was awoken by the doorbell, and suddenly remembered the appointment I had with some sound engineers. So I hurriedly dressed and rushed to the front door. I opened the door to a bright, perfect-looking day, but it struck me as odd that one of the two men had some blood on his face and shirt.
He calmly explained that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, where they worked on the 19th floor, and they had just come from there. I invited the two inside and switched on the TV just in time to see the buildings smoldering and then to watch the South Tower collapse.
I offered my guests water, and wondered why they had bothered to keep the appointment. One of the men sat in a daze in front of the TV; the other, perhaps out of a primal need to maintain order, proceeded to do the sound checks.
I entered a calm, detached state of metaphysical shock, which took several months to wear off: a surreal world in which great buildings fall and people die less than three miles from my home on West 10th Street. After a while the engineers left; I never heard from them again.
I spent most of the rest of the day on the phone with friends and family, sharing the shock, arranging for my children to get home from school, and occasionally going outside to watch from Sixth Avenue – with selfish relief – as the huge black plume of smoke drifted not toward my home in the West Village but to the south and west, toward Brooklyn. In the coming days there would be plenty of noxious fumes to go around, as a layer of dust settled across lower Manhattan.
I’ve often rehearsed that day in my mind and wondered what I might have done differently and better. What does one do when suddenly thrust into a parallel universe? One sticky memory is of doctors, nurses, and gurneys lined up in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital, quietly waiting for victims who never arrived, because most of them were incinerated or crushed or fell from the sky.
Eventually, like my neighbors, I would give blood and money, form opinions, accept new paradigms. I would see a German headline that read, Amerikaner, Wir Sind Bei Euch. I would come to see 9/11 as a nonrandom event.
But on September 11th, I did little more than process the history occurring outside my window, the huge billow of smoke towering over Sixth Avenue. I jotted some notes for a Canadian newspaper – I don’t know if they were published. I groped to understand the new reality – and what seemed like the end of a terrible century that had begun in 1914. With violence now so democratized that small groups could terrorize vast populations, the new era that began on 9/11 didn’t look much better.
In perspective, Antietam was worse. On a similar September day 139 years earlier, more Americans died in the Maryland meadows near Antietam Creek than in all previous wars combined. Just for starters, the two armies – our grandfathers’ grandfathers – fought each other to a bloody standstill in a vast cornfield owned by local farmers belonging to a peaceful sect called Dunkers. Each side lost four thousand men with no result, and so the idiocy continued through the day.
Antietam awoke us to the full horror of our private national holocaust, and the folly of certain generals; 9/11 awoke us to something we did not yet understand.
On that more recent September day, Greenwich Village closed for business, becoming a transitional neighborhood between normal and paranormal. Above 14th Street, life continued pretty much as usual in the following weeks, outwardly at least. For two weeks, an acrid smell filled the streets, and dust fell like a light snowfall on the cars parked on our block. For a week, cars didn’t honk their horns; a veil of solemnity had fallen over the city. I knew that wouldn’t last.
In the weeks and months that followed, through a sad and terrifying autumn in New York marked by threats and rumors of chemical or biological warfare, I thought of a recent car trip through the south of France, and of a place near Aix-en-Provence where the roadside trees suddenly seemed to leap out of a Cézanne watercolor. Spot reminders that life hadn’t cheated me.
Toward evening on the 11th, when my kids got home from school, we talked about the events of the day. How does one prepare teenagers, those most fragile of beings, for a world that is suddenly much more dangerous? How can you tell how much such events affect them, and in what ways? I tried to make them feel safe, telling them that big changes in the world did not automatically mean changes in their daily lives. But my heart ached for their shattered sense of living in a secure world.
For historical perspective, I read aloud to them Roosevelt’s words after Pearl Harbor, a similarly bad day for the nation: “Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
That was two wars ago. Righteous might has again gotten a bad name, and terror and fear have been exploited for political gain. Maybe we have learned the hard way that we can’t fight a “war” against terrorism, any more than we could repair the Union without a war back in the day – or maybe we haven’t. The farther inland one gets from Ground Zero, it seems, the more frightened and irrational people are about terrorism.
Some still confuse victimhood with national innocence, and our troops with a just cause. But on the evening of September 11th , engulfed in a tragedy and with the wind of world sympathy at our backs, FDR’s words made sense to us as never before, and perhaps as never again.
UP IN SMOKE
Precisely how much of the world is ending and what will come?
And what is to be done?
Is that you, Clio, reaching out to touch us?
If not, why all the fuss?
If my little personal life, cell phone, worries, and all the rest, have to end,
I’ll survive I suppose, I can bend.
Just don’t take my children or baseball.
That’s almost all.
And how shall I speak of the bright world they are facing,
When they can hear the ambulances racing?
Was yesterday real or is today?
I cannot say.
At least it’s thousands not millions lost.